Thirty years ago, accountant John List methodically murdered his whole family — his mother, his wife, and their three children. He says he wanted to spare them the shame of losing their New Jersey mansion and to make sure they got to heaven.
Now, in his first-ever public comments about the 1971 crime, the 76-year-old former Sunday school teacher says he is waiting to be reunited with them in the hereafter.
"I feel when we get to heaven we won't worry about these earthly things. They'll either have forgiven me or won't realize, you know, what happened," List told Downtown's Connie Chung in an interview at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, where he is serving five life sentences. "I'm sure that if we recognize each other that we'll like each other's company just as we did here, when times were better."
List left a confession letter at the scene, so police had little doubt as to who was responsible for the killings. But he fled to Colorado, assumed a new name and remarried, managing to elude a nationwide manhunt for 18 years. He was arrested in 1989 after a former neighbor recognized him from a profile on the syndicated TV show America's Most Wanted. He was sentenced to five consecutive life prison terms.
List, who says he remains deeply religious today, acknowledges that his crimes violated one of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill."
"I knew it was wrong. As I was doing it I knew it was wrong," he said.
But, during a four-hour interview, he sought to explain how worries that financial hardship would split his family and turn them away from their faith forced him to make a tough decision. "I finally decided the only way to save them from that was to kill them," he said.
Bank Vice President and Sunday School Teacher
In 1965, when List and his family moved to affluent Westfield, N.J., he seemed to be a model of suburban success and propriety. He was vice president and comptroller of a nearby bank, and his family lived in an 18-room mansion with marble fireplaces and an elegant ballroom. They attended church each week with List's mother, a strict Lutheran who lived with them.
But then his life began to crumble. He lost the bank job, and a succession of subsequent jobs. By 1971, he was still leaving for work every morning, but — unknown to his family — he was unemployed and unable to pay the bills. He spent his days at the train station reading, napping, and wondering how to get his family out of their financial mess.
He says today he felt he was letting the family down. "I grew up with the idea that you should provide for your family and to do that you had to be a success in the job that you had — or you're a failure, and that was not a good thing to be," he said.
Finally, with the prospect of foreclosure threatening to expose his financial failure, List made his terrible decision to kill his family — but not himself.
"It was my belief that if you kill yourself, you won't go to heaven," he said. "So eventually I got to the point where I felt that I could kill them. Hopefully they would go to heaven, and then maybe I would have a chance to later confess my sins to God and get forgiveness."
No Turning Back
After making the decision, List says, there was no turning back. "It's just like D-Day, you go in, there's no stopping after you start," he said.
After finding an old 9 mm pistol he had bought as a souvenir of World War II, and a .22-caliber target pistol, he purchased new ammunition and went to a shooting range for target practice.
One night after dinner, he even asked his family what should be done with their bodies after they died. "I remember talking about funerals and cremation and burials. I thought I was being real clever," he said.
On Nov. 9, 1971, after sending his children off to school, List took his two handguns out to the car to load them, then walked into the kitchen and shot his wife from behind as she was drinking coffee. "I approached all of them from behind so they wouldn't realize till the last minute what I was going to do to them," he said.
Next he went upstairs, to where his 84-year-old mother was having breakfast, kissed her ("like Judas," he told Downtown), and shot her in the head.
Then he went downstairs, dragged his wife's body into the ballroom and began scrubbing up the blood so the children would not realize what was going on when they got back from school.
He went to the post office to stop the family's mail, then to the bank, where he cashed his mother's savings bonds, checking that he got the correct interest to the penny. Returning home, he made several calls to explain that the family had gone to North Carolina to visit his wife's ailing mother, and that he was planning to follow by car.
Breaking for Lunch
Then he sat down and ate lunch at the same table where he had shot his wife hours before. "I was hungry," he told Downtown, adding with a chuckle, "that's just the way it was."
In the afternoon, he killed his children as they came home — first his daughter Patty, a budding actress at 16; then his youngest, 13-year-old Frederic; and finally 15-year-old John, his namesake and his favorite.
Unlike the others, John didn't go quietly, his body jerking as List emptied both the 9 millimeter and the .22 into his son. "I don't know whether it was only because he was still jerking that I wanted to make sure that he didn't suffer, or that it was sort of a way of relieving tension, after having completed what I felt was my assignment for the day," List said.
He lined up the four bodies in the ballroom (he said his mother's body was too heavy to move), put music on the internal intercom, and cleaned up meticulously.
Then he sat down and wrote a confession letter to his pastor explaining his financial problems. "At least I'm certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on who knows if that would be the case," he wrote.
Dr. Steven Simring, a psychiatrist who examined List after his arrest years later, told Downtown his "sense of neatness" was the result of a compulsive personality. Simring said List showed "no evidence of anything that approached genuine remorse," adding, "He's a cold, cold man."
18 Years on the Lam
The day after the killings, List scoured the house for family photographs, tearing his image out of them so police would have nothing to use in Wanted posters. Then he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he left his car as a false lead and took a bus into the city.
Westfield police did not discover the bodies until nearly a month later. When they entered the house, music was still playing on the intercom, but List was long gone.
From New York, he had traveled overland to Denver, where he began a new life under the name Robert P. Clark, working first as a hotel fry cook and later as an accountant for H&R Block. He joined a local Lutheran church and, in 1985, married a widow named Delores Clark, with whom he moved to Richmond, Va.
In 1989, America's Most Wanted featured List and a forensic sculptor's impression of how he would look then, 18 years after the murders. List caught the tail end of the show with his wife, who did not know his past. "I was perspiring like anything," he remembers, but said his wife did not seem to have recognized him.
But back in Denver, his former neighbors did recognize him, and called police. He was arrested 11 days later, and, after a jury rejected his diminished capacity defense, convicted and sentenced. In a three-sentence statement to the court, he said he was sorry for "the tragedy that happened in 1971." He did not mention his wife, his mother, or his children.
Austin Goodrich, an ABCNEWS consultant who is writing a book with John List, contributed material for this report.